Arts & Culture

In Search of The Grey Lady

When finishing up my studies at Miskatonic University, I received a parcel of things that belonged to a recently deceased member of my family. It was the usual bit of ephemera: a few stray notes scribbled here and there, postcards from people I didn’t know, and references to places that didn’t exist anymore. I had just about resigned these papers to a junk drawer in my home when I noticed a single sentence fragment written in a much less measured scratch than the grocery lists and missed phone calls: “THE GREY LADY”.

Puzzled, I went up into the stacks to talk to Dr. Armitage, the research librarian, about who or what the Grey Lady could mean. My relative spent a couple of years on a merchant vessel that traversed the waters off of Chile. Was the Grey Lady the name of the ship?

Ironically, my answer resided in a different library: the Willard Library in Evansville, Indiana. Its namesake, Willard Carpenter, wished to see a library built and began the process around 1876. Construction would conclude on March 28th, 1885, a year and a half after Mr. Carpenter died from a massive stroke.

Willard (c1901)

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Wanting to know more, I was put into contact with Greg Hager, the Director of Willard Library. With a background in the social sciences, business management, and a master’s degree in library sciences, Mr. Hager first worked in a library when he was 16 years old. He relocated to Evansville from Michigan, taking the position of adult services librarian at the Willard and moving up from there, working at the library for 24 years. He has a passion for helping people find exactly what they’re looking for: I had come to the right place.

As far as the Grey Lady goes, she is a regular visitor to the Willard Library, but she is unique in that she is dead. Who was the Grey Lady in life? “Nobody knows. There’s been much speculation about who the Grey Lady is. A lot of people believe that she is the ghost of the daughter of the Willard Library,” Mr. Hager explained. “Willard Carpenter was a self-made millionaire who left the money and left the land… for the library. He was a pillar of the community. He could be seen actually carrying brick and mortar up into the scaffolding to build the library.”

When Willard died, he made sure his family was provided for and left a large amount of his money to the library itself. His oldest daughter felt like she hadn’t gotten her fair share and sued the library around the turn of the century, a lawsuit that she lost. “Some people say because of that, she holds a grudge and haunts the library,” Mr. Hager said.

The Grey Lady was first spotted in 1937 by a custodian who arrived early in the morning to stoke the furnace and warm up the library. It was in February, around 3am, that he encountered a female spirit wearing an old-fashioned Victorian dress with a veil over her face, which would be alarming enough even if his flashlight hadn’t shone right through her. It was said that he was so rattled, he took to drink and quit the job when no one believed him.

Others speculate that the Grey Lady may not be the eldest Carpenter daughter but a mysterious spirit associated with the land itself. Other groups think there are up to eight or nine different entities in the library, from children to old people to deceased pets. Regardless of who is haunting what, there is a consensus among the different groups who come to study the library: some kind of paranormal event is taking place.

Mr. Hager prefers scientifically minded groups to come study the library. There are certain areas of the library that contain high levels of electromagnetic activity, particularly a spot in the basement near the children’s section of the library where the Grey Lady was first encountered. That sort of fluctuation could cause certain people who are sensitive to those frequencies to feel as if they have encountered something supernatural, though the Grey Lady has been spotted all over the library.

In the 1980’s, two policemen met with an older director of the library to investigate a tripped alarm. One entered the library with the director as his partner waited in the car. The directory and officer swept the building, finding no one and nothing askew, but the partner saw the figure of a woman with a man standing behind her, glancing out the window. When the officer and director regrouped with the partner in the car, he asked them about the two people in the window, and the director laughed, telling him it must have been the ghosts.

After years of word of mouth and a couple of stray newspaper articles, the Grey Lady went from a rumor to common knowledge around Evansville. Around 1999, the Willard Library installed 24/7 streaming webcams to allow people from around the world to look for paranormal activity. The story was picked up by the Associated Press and on Halloween night, there was so much traffic on the website that all of Evansville’s internet crashed. “At that point, when that happened, we knew that was marketing gold,” Mr. Hager said with a grin.

Though Mr. Hager describes himself as a skeptic, he had an encounter in 1995. It was around the time of the annual board meeting. “I was here, waiting for members of the board of trustees to arrive… it was upstairs, above this room, in the conference room where the police saw the figures… and I heard what I would characterize as footsteps coming across the floor of that room,” he told me. The only other person in the library was not in the conference room or anywhere near it.

Other odd things happen on occasion too. Invisible hands knocked a donation jug across the room it was in. Odd feelings, odd sounds, things that were hard to deny. Because of this, paranormal groups starting coming in droves. Mr. Hager prefers groups who come in with “some scientific method,” he told me. “If they come in here with something that is measuring something in the environment, we’ll work with that.” The more rigorous and level-headed, the better. I was in agreement, and my desire for knowledge was piqued further. Maybe I could find out more about the Grey Lady from someone else who sought her out.

Mr. Hager put me into correspondence with Dr. Tim Harte, a paranormal researcher with a background in mental health. He works full time as a Program Therapist at the Lincoln Prairie Behavioral Health Center in Springfield, Illinois when he isn’t teaching young people how to play the drums. He has been working in paranormal research for decades now, combining a rigorous scientific approach with specialized equipment he helped develop in order to understand the unexplainable.

Dr. Harte first became interested in the paranormal when he read a book from the late seventies called “The Entity” by Frank DeFellita. It was “based on a true story” about “a woman being raped almost daily by an unseen spirit”. The woman contacted two parapsychologists for help, and it was their use of “scientific instruments and methods to measure the environment” that piqued Dr. Harte’s interest.

Dr. Harte identifies as a Southern Baptist, which informs the work he does, but he approaches all his work with the mind of a trained scientist. “I usually look for a physical cause first when studying cases and people involved,” he told me. “I look for things to be explained naturally” though a lot of the experiences “cannot always be explained with physical causes”. “I started tinkering around with a few friends in high school to use computers and sensors to measure physical, environmental factors like temperature,” he told me in our correspondence.

Out of this grew a need for specialized equipment, and in 1994, Dr. Harte was part of the pilot studies to develop MESA, a Multi-Energy Sensor Array. According to, the MESA is a “portable data acquisition and analysis system that simultaneously measures a variety of energies commonly associated with haunt phenomena”, including “infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light intensities, natural and artificially generated electromagnetic fields, gamma ray radiation, galvanic skin response of a human subject, infrasound, and vibration”.

Dr. Harte co-developed the system with David Black, a friend from high school “with degrees in electrical engineering and software technology”. Developed while he was working on his master’s thesis at the University of Illinois in Springfield, “MESA is a laptop computer connected to an analog-to-digital (A/D) converter which is connected to eight sensors,” he explained. “We can measure many different signals from almost any kind of sensor if we can find a voltage that the sensor puts out”. MESA has been used consistently since 1994 to measure over 300 sites.

Dr. Harte had his first brush with the paranormal during an investigation of the Grand Opera House in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1994. He was on one of the inaugural runs testing the MESA system when he began to notice a plethora of unexplained phenomena. The team of researchers “recorded orbs on VHS video coming out of the walls” as well as the “sounds of people coughing” who weren’t there and slamming doors where no earthly hands were around to shut them.

People usually alert him to potential hauntings through the internet, but lately, there haven’t been many inquiries. When Dr. Harte began his studies, there were a lot fewer paranormal researchers. “Many individuals and groups do this for a hobby” though “there are very few professional ghost hunters”. Dr. Harte confirmed my suspicion that most of the self-proclaimed paranormal researchers are “usually local people” who “use video and audio recorders and base what they think is “scientific” on what they have seen on television”. Less rigorous paranormal researchers and hobbyists have a tendency to put the cart in front of the horse by producing “evidence” that is virtually unprovable by the scientific method.

Setting up an investigation requires a lot of pre-planning. Dr. Harte checks to see which other groups have studied the area in question, scouring their reports and experiences to see if they have encountered anything of note or if their investigations are even trustworthy at all. When a time is set up to investigate, Dr. Harte acts quickly, usually with between one to four other team members. “I usually measure a place for only 1 hour, using MESA, and I try to use video and audio recording as well,” he explained. “MESA produces graphs so I can tell if there is something unusual.” Dr. Harte tries to remain as transparent as possible about the process, explaining to everyone what was recorded, “if it could be paranormal or anomalous,” and follow up with further investigations if the initial study seems promising.

And there have been lots of occurrences which remain unexplained. “I have seen many things that look like real people, shadows, shapes, forms, mists,” he recounted. “I have heard voices of people that are not there.” He has heard the steps of ghostly feet, the breath of beings who no longer breathe, the smell of perfumes, cigars, and even rotting flesh. Invisible hands have grabbed his arms, equipment has malfunctioned or failed altogether, his tools have gone missing, and even his emotional state has been tampered with while out on an investigation.

Dr. Harte has a personal connection to Evansville too. After moving to town in 1998, a friend tipped him off to the Grey Lady of the Willard Library. Dr. Harte began spending time in the stacks, reading books and soaking up the atmosphere. A year later, a San Francisco film company contacted him about making a documentary and the Willard Library seemed like a natural choice. Filmed over three days in June 1999, the special was titled “Real Ghostbusters” and was shown on the Discovery Channel. “It was one of the first shows that featured groups recording a variety of physical phenomena,” particularly “anomalous audio” from all across the US, he explained.

This had the unintended effect of making it more difficult to study hauntings. “Other individuals and groups will hoard haunted sites and try to keep them for themselves. They all become very jealous and do not share the site, or their data… they may post it on their website way after the fact or never tell anyone they have done an investigation” which are a few of the factors that lead Dr. Harte to maintain small groups or even work alone.

Dr. Harte’s rigorous scientific approach to the unexplained, as well as his consistency in researching the Willard Library, has led to a good working relationship with Greg Hager. On October 21st of this year, Dr. Harte will conduct his 21st investigation of the Willard. His connection to the library even has a title now: “paranormal counsel,” which allows Dr. Harte to participate in every scheduled investigation.

As far as his most unusual experience there, he recalled a 2006 investigation on the research floor. “It felt like something ran between us, grabbed my left arm, swung it way back from me, and then ran away… like someone had thrown a wet, warm towel at my left arm, but it also felt like it grabbed my arm and pushed it back away from my body,” he remembered.

As far as the future of paranormal research goes… it doesn’t look good. “There are so many groups clamoring for sites, trying to get on television, trying to become famous, and they have absolutely no scientific training,” he sighed. “They all form groups, print black shirts with little white logos and mess everything up for everyone else. It’s terrible… I am very cynical now… there is no methodology, there is no continuous data, except for audio and video. There aren’t any groups interested in the real science of measuring geomagnetic fields because it takes special electronic expertise to make the sensors”.

I may never know what unspeakable horror led my departed relative to make that final, frightened scribble. It is hard to make a final summary of what must remain to us, as of now, as unknowable and always just out of reach. Even the most hardened skeptic must admit to a passing feeling or two of unseen eyes upon their neck, but even the most enthusiastic believer must draw the line somewhere. A door slamming shut need not be thrown by the invisible hands of the dead, but not every single thing on this inhabited rock of ours is within our grasp to explain. To paraphrase a dear, departed friend, the piecing together of all our dissociated knowledge runs the potential of sending us into an enlightened madness or retreating back into the comparative peace of darkness. As far as Grey Ladies go, I cannot make a conclusion, but I can wonder.

This post originally appeared at Medium, October 31, 2017.



Categories: Arts & Culture, Science

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